On Race, Dog Whistles, and the Old Confederacy

I mentioned last night two dog-whistle moments at the latest GOP debate. One was Rick Perry's saying that the state of South Carolina was "at war with this federal government"; the other was Newt Gingrich's repeated insistence that Barack Obama was the "food stamp president."

One reader hotly disagrees:

Many times you present your perspective fairly, but in today's footnote comments about the South Carolina debate in your Final on Huntsman blog posting, one of two things is apparent.  Neither alternative reflects well upon you.

You cited as a "dog whistle" Newt Gingrich's comment that Obama is "the food stamp President".  By calling that a dog whistle you are dog whistling to your own constituencies about how terrible and racist those evil Republicans are.

You should certainly be aware that Newt Gingrich and other Republican candidates have many times in recent months made the argument that President Obama's administration has resulted in record numbers of Americans receiving food stamps, while record numbers of Americans are unable to find jobs.  They then promise policies that will result in more jobs and fewer people needing food stamps as employment improves.  They may make the point as well that it is more personally uplifting to feed one's family as a result of holding employment, than it is to be dependent on food stamp assistance.

Alternative one is that James Fallows is ignorant of this argument or fails to see that it might resonate with people of all races who hope to support themselves in the job market.  That would imply an obtuseness that other evidence does not support.

Alternative two is that James Fallows understands this formulation but pretends not to for the specific purpose of unfairly accusing its proponents of racism.  Given that the distribution of food stamp assistance is broadly represented among whites, Latinos, and blacks in America, even if the argument were "nobody should be receiving food stamps", which it clearly isn't, where is the racial viciousness supposed to come from?  The ugly smearing appears to be coming from this hypothetical James Fallows alternative two.

Look, there are plenty of cultural, aesthetic, and policy issues you may have with the Republican South Carolina campaign.  It might be wise to confine your arguments to those real differences rather than smearing people for slurs they do not make.

Here is a third alternative, the one I believe: that Newt Gingrich knows exactly what he is doing when he calls Obama the "food stamp" president, just as Ronald Reagan knew exactly what he was doing when talking about "welfare Cadillacs." There are lots of other ways to make the point about economic hard times -- entirely apart from which person and which policies are to blame for today's mammoth joblessness, and apart from the fact that Congress sets food stamp policies. You could call him the "pink slip president," the "foreclosure president," the "Walmart president," the "Wall Street president," the "Citibank president," the "bailout president," or any of a dozen other images that convey distress. You decide to go with "the food stamp president," and you're doing it on purpose.

If Joe Lieberman had been elected, I would be wary of attacks on his economic policy that called him "the cunning, tight-fisted president." If Henry Cisneros had or Ken Salazar does, I would notice arguments about ineffectiveness phrased as "the mañana administration." If Gary Locke were in office, then "the Manchurian candidate" jokes that had been used on Jon Huntsman would have a different edge. And so on. This reader may not recognize it as a dog whistle, but I have no doubt that Newt Gingrich knows what it is. I don't think that Gingrich has had a racist-style political career; on the contrary. But he knows what this language does. [More on Newt and the racial dog whistle of "food stamp president" from the NYT here.] [And here's background on NAACP-vs.-Newt on "food stamp" claims.]

Another reader from South Carolina disagrees in a different way:

Your comment on those dog whistles was, "A coincidence that the GOP's stronghold is the old Confederacy? I have begun to think not." Your expressed reluctance to acknowledge this truth seems more naïve than I know you to be.

As a native and current resident of SC, I want to disavow those around the country who think "dog whistle" is an apt metaphor for "racist comment" or even "comment that may have a purpose linked to racial division." Everyone I know here in my home state of SC knows exactly what signal is being sent, and we all hear it--white and black, regardless of political allegiances. Perry is from Texas. Newt is from Georgia. They don't have to use dog whistles. Regular whistles work just fine...just like they do for most successful statewide politicians in SC.

As a white, liberal South Carolinian married into a family that more accurately reflects the statewide republican hegemony, I hear routinely expressed over dinner or on a drive across town racist whistle blowing...enough to make dogs, yes, but also more enlightened humans cover their ears. And all the things I hear about...whether directed at President Obama, Jim Clyburn, Martin Luther King, or that black child walking down the sidewalk...are said without the least bit of "discretion" or worry that the inferiority of others might be something other than "the way things are."

Between racist barbs, the same people can be as kind as your own mother to me and to my daughter. They might even be similarly kind to that "big fat black woman" who cleans their house. And you see, this family is not a rarity. They move regularly in the mainstream, upper middle class/upper class circles. I don't know what such circles are like in New York, but I picture a benefit for a charity or the opening of a new wing at some nice university art center. Picture the NY sort who attend these events because they contributed in some smallish way to the cause--the racist people I am talking about here in SC are a similar socio economic group. But the conversation, once things get "real," might include some allusion to, for example, evidence that Jim Clyburn is comically, stereotypically dumb. Oh sure, they usually know when to refrain from blowing the racist whistle. Like when the blacks are around. Or when a microphone might be on. But sometimes, rarely, they don't know how and a big brouhaha develops, usually ended by an "apology for any offense someone may have taken."

Now that my relationship to my in laws is pretty much set in stone, I sense only the slightest effort, sometimes, to refrain from outright racist commentary on the issues of the day or the people who cross their paths. Even though they know I'm "off" in my politics, they see no need to adjust or tone things down. Here's why: they believe they are correct, not racist.

They don't really know that, when the "liberal media" or the "academics" talk about racism, they are talking about the systemic white supremacy that is shot through the language and society of SC. Or, if they do understand this idea, they regard it as intellectualized bunk. I'm sure things are "better than they used to be" in multiple ways, but I've known since early exposure to white children not in my family (in the seventies and eighties) that the whistles being blown were audible to everyone.

I hope you'll forgive the length of this email. Sometimes, I just get fed up with the idea that racism is merely some sort of surreptitious quality of SC (not to mention its politics). It's out in the open, and that's how it's possible for it to work as intended. Cause you see "Racism" cannot be expressed openly. That would be impolite.

A few more. First:

The debate was held on the King Holiday, the Fox News questioners prefaced a couple of questions noting that the debate was taking place on the MLK Holiday, and yet I do not believe that any of the candidates offered any tribute to Dr. King. Nothing in the way of a salute to his contributions or a tribute to his life's work and accomplishments.  It could have been perfunctory, anything. I realize they were in South Carolina.  But I don't recall any such comment from any of the candidates.

Now, in response to my line about the GOP's base in the old Confederacy:

Nobody I know down here in Loooziana thinks that way any more, and I've been down here a longggg time.

I think this has more to do with the candidates than the audience. Pandering in the extreme, and inept, inaccurate stereotyped pandering at that.

FInally, from a U.S. Army officer:

Y'know, when I was growing up the "Solid South" was still a Democratic stronghold.  The whole region seems to bitch whomever depends on it.  But somebody ought to do a sociology Ph.D. on the love the US Army has for the Confederacy. 

I drove in this morning behind a huge dualie with a rear windshield lovingly painted with a waving Confederate battle flag and an ornate "CSA" lettered across it.  Makes me want to throttle someone.  I remember the visiting officers' quarters at Fort Sam Houston had a painting of General Lee and his fellows riding home from war -- I'd look at it and think, yeah, they just shot a bunch of _us_.  It's creepy, but there's an awful lot of Confederate stuff on and around military bases.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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